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Emily Lowe Gallery enlists help of art conservator

By By Samantha Lim, Staff Writer

Time halts under the skilled hands of Jonathan Sherman. Works of art are sent to the conservator for him to perform his magic. His job is not to restore youth to the artwork, but to help them age gracefully. Sherman understands the importance of respecting the original artist's vision.

"It's not your goal to make something better. If something's not very good, it's ok. You're just preserving it," he said. "You have to be very creative to improvise and figure out how to preserve things that are falling apart and that you can't replace." He isn't dealing with expendable items that anyone can simply purchase from IKEA and assemble in front of the television.

"Sometimes people bring paintings to me that have been in their family for a long time. They may not be good paintings, but as a kid, the person grew up looking at this painting on grandmother's wall, so it means a lot." For this reason, he enjoys taking on projects from private owners more than dealers. "Dealers are very much like, 'I paid a thousand for this painting, I want to sell it for two thousand, and I can only spend this much on restoration.' It's all dollars and cents!" he said with a sad shrug.

Sherman also works with institutional clients, such as the Hofstra University Museum, and has in fact, been kept busy prepping works of art for an upcoming exhibition titled, "Yonia Fain: Remembrance."

There is always a good chance of catching Sherman at his studio in Sea Cliff, as the art conservator from Franklin Square spends six days a week there. The picturesque little village located on the northern shore of Long Island is known as an artists' Mecca. Past residents include the likes of actress Natalie Portman, novelist Robert Olen Butler, and poet William Cullen Bryant. Amid houses that look like they came straight out of a fairytale and cozy cafés decorated with eccentric mosaic pieces is the Sherman Art Conservation, where Jonathan Sherman mends perforations, reintegrates missing regions, and reframes artwork.

"You hear people say, 'If I won the lottery, I would play golf all day.' This is what I would do. If I had unlimited money, I would be here. It's great to have a job that you really, really like so it's not even work," he said. Sure enough, the quiet man donned in jeans and a shirt of an identical bluelooks tranquil in his environment.

When asked if artistic genes run in his family, he suddenly becomes bashful. "I don't know if I would put it like that," he said. "My parents really liked art, although neither one was an artist. As a child, they always took me to museums and encouraged that. I was a painter for awhile and then..." He begins rambling about the positives of having a background in journalism, though by background, he really means backup.

"You get to a point where you get out of college with an art degree and you're like, 'What do I do with this?'" He had a vague notion of Art Conservation at the time, and deemed it an interesting alternative. Research led him to a school in Italy that was part of an American program at Rosary College. After three years, he earned his Masters in Fine Arts, and capped his education with an internship.

Sherman leads the way to one of his workstations, which is reminiscent of an operating table. Tools of various sizes, some small as a pin, others bulky thingamabobs, are strewn around a painting, which he declares is from the 1840s. He has spent long hours doctoring the painting, meaning chiseling off bits of wood stuck to its back. "Never glue a painting to a stretcher!" he cautions. "Sometimes the worst thing to deal with is someone else's mess."  

An art conservator is a jack-of-all-trades. Although the Arts and Sciences seem to exist on opposite spectrums, Sherman's line of work necessitates cross-disciplinary knowledge in the latter. "When you study art conservation, you study chemistry and physics, because you have to have a working knowledge of it. Every type of paint has a different consistency and different solubility. You have to understand what they're made of," he said. "But I would never call myself a chemist," he humbly adds.

An upcoming project puts him at the Golden Theater on 44th Street in Manhattan. He excitedly describes his involvement: "Old photographs show that there's a mural along the top part of the theater that's been painted over, so I'm going to do tests to see if I can find the mural underneath." One such test is to concoct a solvent that will dilute the over paint without damaging the original mural.

Sherman confidently exudes a string of no's when posed with the question if the possibility of performing an unsatisfactory job on someone else's art ever makes him nervous. "Sometimes I work with living artists. I always ask them lots of questions. If an artist works with unusual materials, you can ask them what they use, because sometimes that's the hardest thing. You find paintings that artists experiment with and you don't know what's going on!" The only time he turned down a restoration job was a literal scenario of 'my dog ate the painting.' "It was just a balled-up piece of canvas!" Sherman guffawed. He looked at what used to be a 50 thousand dollar painting and said, "You know Linda, I just can't restore this," even though the client was upset. Proof of Sherman's resolute nature shines through in one statement: "I always regret that I didn't get a chance with that painting!"

Art conservation has its downsides; Sherman is constantly exposed to toxic solvents, which could take a serious toll on his health. "It's not the oil paint, but the turpentine or any thinners you use. Pancreatic cancer is an artists' disease, and it's a sad, but very serious thing. So you really have to be careful." He always plays it safe by pulling on a pair of gloves or strapping a mask over his nose and mouth. "That helps, too," he said pointing up. The ventilation system above our heads solves the mystery of how a room filled with all kinds of paints manages to remain odorless.

Artists and curators number the dozen in New York, but coming across an art conservationist is comparable to discovering a four-leaf clover. Sherman is the only art conservator in Nassau County. Another negative aspect of Sherman's profession is that work is sometimes hard to come by. In adherence to Alfred Marshall's law of economics, which Sherman quotes in three words: "Supply and demand," not many pursue Art Conservation because of limited prospects. "I'm lucky to have my business," said Sherman. Concurrently, the Hofstra University Museum is fortunate to have enlisted his services, for without him, many exhibitions would not have been successes.

The paintings being showcased at "Yonia Fain: Remembrance" have had Sherman's touch. Yonia Fain, a retired Hofstra University professor of Art History and Humanities, pays homage to victims of the Holocaust via powerful and moving paintings. The renowned artist has worked alongside Diego Rivera, who is considered by many as the greatest Mexican painter in history. "Apparently when Fain and Rivera met in Mexico City, they hit it off right away," said Sherman, who had the pleasure of visiting 98-year-old Yonia Fain in his home in Carol Gardens, Brooklyn. "It was very nice to meet him. He doesn't hear very well, but proudly showed us his little worktable and his bedroom, and said he still works everyday. You meet people like that and it's..." his voice trails off. "Just what he's gone through," he resumes in a tone softened by awe. Sherman will be attending the opening reception of "Yonia Fain: Remembrance" April 19th from 2-4 pm in the Emily Lowe Gallery. The event is open to all students looking to enjoy an afternoon of art, live music and free refreshments.

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